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Hope from the hook

Anglers have removed more than 40,000 invasive burbot from Wyoming waters during fishing derbies. These competitions are one tool in managing the voracious predators that were illegally introduced west of the continental divide.

by: Dan England

Dustin Egbert and his cousin, Bo Egbert, used to enjoy four-man ice fishing trips with their fathers, the kind that inspired Hallmark card moments. As the cousins grew older, though, they began making those trips by themselves. 

Egbert, who lives in Rock Springs, Bo and their buddy Joe Iliya, treat ice fishing the way other guys approaching 30 might consider a weekend in Las Vegas. They arrive Friday morning, set up their huts on the frozen Flaming Gorge Reservoir in southwest Wyoming and fish from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. They nap in the morning and do it again during the afternoon and night. They do this mostly at a derby with a title that befits their weekend-at-Vegas atmosphere: the Burbot Bash. The two had fun fishing for lake trout, but burbot fishing provided a different kind of angling fun.

“Going for lake trout, you don’t always catch them,” Egbert said. “But when you can catch 30 to 40 burbot in one night, it makes you feel like an angler again.”

Those in the Flaming Gorge Reservoir and Green River area wish the world consisted of more Egberts, Bos and Joes. Burbot are voracious predators. So when anglers illegally introduced them years ago, the results were disastrous. With no natural predators to control their population, the greedy burbot have all but wiped out the smallmouth bass population in Flaming Gorge and Fontenelle reservoirs..
But there’s a way to fight the fish with fishing. That’s where the Burbot Bash, and its sister tournament, the Classic, come in. The derbies measure angler success by total weight of burbot caught, so anglers are encouraged to catch as many of the fish as possible

The derbies are fun and encourage people to spend money in the nearby towns during a slow time of year. They also serve a third and, in this case, overall primary purpose: they allow anglers to act, albeit temporarily, as the burbot predators the reservoir needs. Egbert, after all, is pretty voracious too. 
Egbert was fishing with a buddy for lake trout in 2013 when his friend asked if he’d heard of ling, another name for burbot. Egbert had fished all his life and was up for something new, so they tried to catch the slippery fish. 

“We had a blast,” he said, “and two weeks later was the Bash. We took fourth the first time we did it, so that got us hooked.”

Egbert doesn’t giggle at the obvious pun. He means it. The last two years, his team has won the derby by catching the most burbot. He doesn’t compete in other derbies. The Bash, and the accompanying Burbot Classic are his Vegas. He scouts by fishing ahead of the competitions and knows what the fish like and how to get them. But mostly he and his team go hard.
Unfortunately, so do the burbot. 
 
Illegal addition 
 
Speaking of Hallmark-card moments, there was a time when parents could take their kids to Flaming Gorge Reservoir and catch 30 smallmouth bass. 

Once the burbot were illegally introduced, the greedy, aggressive fish began devouring smallmouth bass like vacationers do steaks on the Vegas strip. The burbot also preyed upon crayfish, a primary food item for smallmouth bass, which also contributed to the decreased smallmouth population.
“Now you would be hard-pressed to catch one from the shore in Wyoming,” said John Walrath, Wyoming Game and Fish Department fisheries biologist for the Green River region. “That was just in a few years. Anything less than 9 inches was just wiped out.”

In 2000, anglers illegally added another fish to the party and introduced burbot to the famed Flaming Gorge area. On the surface, it probably seemed like a good idea. After all, what could one fish species do to hurt such a well-established fishing spot? Burbot are slimy, and in order to eat them, you have to skin them, which is a turn-off for some people. But the burbot isn’t a bad fish. It’s a white fish, much like a cod, that you can smoke, grill or boil and bathe in butter.

“People call it the poor man’s lobster,” Walrath said. 

Because burbot are native to the waters of the Missouri River drainages, fish residing on the east side of the continental divide are a species of greatest conservation need, with a creel limit of three. Burbot west of the divide have disrupted and nearly eliminated some popular sport fisheries resulting in Wyoming enacting the opposite kind of regulation: If you catch a burbot, you must kill it. 
The practice of introducing fish to another body of water, while illegal, isn’t unheard of in many popular fishing spots. 

“Most of the time it’s anglers introducing species they like to catch elsewhere,” Walrath said. “They get tired of driving the distance required to catch the fish they like to eat.”

The problem is anglers practicing illegal bucket biology don’t think about what can happen when you introduce a new organism to a functioning system. 

“Many don’t think that the fish can escape where they put them,” Walrath said. “They just think they want to catch a fish without really understanding the biology. It’s a delicate balance. In the end, one small thing can have a big ripple effect.”

That ripple is more like a wave at this point. Burbot were introduced into the Green River drainage and first discovered in the Big Sandy Reservoir in 2001. The fish were found in Fontenelle Reservoir in 2005 and were first caught in Flaming Gorge Reservoir a year later. They’ve been caught in the Green River below Flaming Gorge and have been found in some Utah reservoirs. 

“At some point, there’s a thermal barrier for them,” Walrath said of the cold-water fish. “But those large reservoirs have plenty of cold water habitat for them. If they can make it into Lake Powell they could persist there.”
 
Derbies as a tool

Three years ago, thin ice forced derby organizers to cancel the Burbot Bash, and both organizers and biologists noticed the burbot population get stronger. 

“You have to keep after it year after year,” said Jerry Taylor, who helped organize the bash as the former owner of Lucerne Valley Marina at Flaming Gorge. “We won’t cancel it again. We will just use boats if we have to.”

The derby in recent years has, indeed, been a bash, with more than 200 teams of up to four people each and $30,000 in cash and prizes. It’s also good for tourism in southwest Wyoming and northeast Utah. 
“It’s provided some economic prosperity in the middle of the winter,” said Mark Wilson, president of the Flaming Gorge Chamber of Commerce in Manila, Utah and the owner of a guest lodge. 

That’s especially important given how the area relies on trophy fishing as bait to attract visitors. Nearly all that fishing takes place in the warmer months. 

“When you’re in a highly seasonal area like we are, anything to bring people out in the winter is more than welcome by the business community,” Wilson said.

Burbot derbies take place in the winter when the cold-water fish are more active. That makes it an ideal ice fishing target, but the cold weather can freeze the tootsies off the hardiest angler. 

Burbot haven’t destroyed the Flaming Gorge fishery, as lake trout and kokanee salmon are still available, Wilson said. But the invasive predator has harmed the fishery by reducing the smallmouth bass population. Cutting down on the burbot and restoring the bass population isn’t the only goal. 
“It’s to let people know that it’s an invasive fish,” Wilson said. “We want to raise awareness about it, and maybe we can get a few more out there to help us out.”

The Burbot Bash, which usually takes place the third week of January, and the Burbot Classic, which usually takes place the first week of February, have helped, even if half of the teams don’t catch more than 10 in the two days, and 30 percent don’t even catch one. Those numbers don’t matter as much as the participation. 

 “The derbies get a lot of public attention,” said Walrath. “Most of the time, it’s still first-time burbot anglers, and that’s why we do these derbies. We want them to get their feet wet. These are a good tool to use to get the word out and engage the public and say why it’s important to catch these fish.”
It is hard to say whether those first-time burbot anglers continue to catch fish, but it’s thought at least a few do, and there are repeat derby participants, such as Egbert. 

The Bash attracted nearly 700 participants in 2016, and while it hasn’t grown since then, it has remained steady. Last year just under 700 fished at the Bash. 

Anglers may not be the only help, Walrath said. There are signs that lake trout will flex their fins. They’ve lived with the burbot in the reservoir for the last 15 years, learning their habits over time.
“They are just now reaching a size where the trout can prey on them,” Walrath said. “Burbot are dark, not shiny, but the new lake trout are figuring them out. We are mildly optimistic the trout will begin to carve into the burbot population.”

In the meantime, Wyoming and Utah will continue to promote the derbies as a way to hook more anglers into catching themselves a poor man’s meal of lobster on ice.

Those who participate in the derbies, such as Egbert and his cousin and buddies, have removed 40,000 burbot from the reservoir since they began. But Walrath drools at the possibility of what could happen if more anglers got hooked on catching burbot and treated the slimy fish like their own personal Las Vegas buffet. 

“We hope they figure out that burbot taste good and want to fish them later,” Walrath said. “Forty-thousand doesn’t sound like a whole heck of a lot, but when you account for the ones who may want to come back and fish come more, that 40,000 could turn into 400,000.”

- WGFD -


 
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